According to legend, the Shakers originally built their barns round so that the devil couldn't trap them in a corner.
It's a good story, says Devin Colman, a historic buildings specialist with the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. But he suggests that the round barn's design — which is not actually round but a dodecagon, or 12-sided — was driven more by Shaker pragmatism than fears of fire and brimstone.
"The whole idea was to maximize efficiency for the workers," explains Colman, who notes that the first such Shaker version was built in Hancock, Mass., in 1826. (George Washington built a 16-sided barn in Virginia 33 years earlier.) Nearly all round barns, including the one in Waitsfield, built in 1910, had three floors and an open center shaft for storing silage or hay. This could be unloaded from a wagon driven directly onto the top floor.
Cows were housed in a circle on the middle level, Colman explains, which made milking easier and more efficient. When the cows needed to be fed, farmers simply dropped hay bales down the center shaft from the top floor. Similarly, manure from the middle floor could be quickly shoveled onto wagons on the bottom floor, then spread on fields as fertilizer. Says Colman, "You can go in [a round barn] and understand instantly how it worked."
Of the estimated 12,000 to 15,000 agricultural structures in Vermont, only 11 historic round barns remain. Nearly all, Colman notes, are still in use, including some for agriculture.
Two decades ago, the Artisans' Gallery, a small arts cooperative, opened on Waitsfield's Bridge Street, just down the hill from the Inn at the Round Barn. Cofounder Lori Klein says the gallery, which supports more than 150 local artists, never would have survived this long were it not for the wedding guests the Round Barn and other venues bring to town.
"I credit AnneMarie and her parents for opening the wedding business, not only in this community but in the entire state," she says.
That's no hyperbole. Susan Klein (no relation to Lori), executive director of the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce, credits the Round Barn for initially putting the Mad River Valley on the map as a wedding destination.
But 15 years ago, she recalls, DeFreest came to the Chamber to discuss the possibility that the Round Barn might not always be there as a wedding venue. "She said, 'You shouldn't put all your eggs in my basket,'" Klein remembers.
Klein and DeFreest worked together to found the Mad River Valley Association of Wedding Professionals, which later morphed into the Vermont Association of Wedding Professionals.
About the same time, Susan Klein says, several other local properties, including the Skinner Barn, the 1824 House, Lareau Farm and Sugarbush Resort, were also ramping up their capabilities for weddings and other large functions. It took five to eight years to finally "move the needle," she says.
Joerg Klauck, president and co-owner of the Vermont Wine Merchants Company in Burlington, has worked closely with the Round Barn's staff since 1996, when his own business was founded. He credits DeFreest for "incubating skills in a lot of people who've moved on from the Round Barn, and her approach has benefited not only those people but their next employer and the community at large."
In 2005, the Mad River Valley Chamber studied the economic impact that six local properties, including the Inn at the Round Barn, have had on the local economy. That year, those six properties held a combined 79 functions with 8,860 guests. The Chamber tallied all the money those visitors spent in the Valley, including rehearsal dinners, wedding officiates, photographers, invitations, bands, DJs, cakes, lodging, flowers, hair salons, gasoline, gift purchases and so on.
The answer? In total, Klein says, the wedding business generated about $7.6 million for the local economy in one year alone, as well as an additional $341,000 in direct tax revenues to the state.
"This really opened our eyes to the fact that, 'Oh, my God, this is an industry,'" Klein says. "And it all began with AnneMarie saying, 'I might be getting out of the wedding business.'"
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